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Dom Romeo, CEO of Pine View Pontiac Buick GMC Trucks, speaks with an employee in the showroom. (Anne-Marie Jackson/Anne-Marie Jackson/THE GLOBE AND)
Dom Romeo, CEO of Pine View Pontiac Buick GMC Trucks, speaks with an employee in the showroom. (Anne-Marie Jackson/Anne-Marie Jackson/THE GLOBE AND)

Cover Story

End of the road Add to ...

"Have a look. My name is Rick, by the way. Have a look in this car. Hop in it."

Hop in it?

"Yeah. It doesn't cost you any more."

And so it begins. The seduction. The salesman on the showroom floor - in this case Rick Spagnuolo at Pine View Pontiac Buick Sales Ltd., out in what was once the rural outreaches of Toronto.

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The vehicle on the showroom floor - in this case a silver Buick Enclave that feels about as big as Montana once you get up behind the wheel there.

And the customer?

"I sold one of these the day before yesterday," trumpets Mr. Spagnuolo, whose eyes dance in the late-afternoon sunshine and who seems like such a nice man and who peeled 11 grand off the $57,000 sticker price on a pearl white (beige interior) Enclave.

"That's a beautiful car … My wife and I drove to Florida three or four months ago. We got there, it was like I hadn't even driven a car."

You might think for a second that time has stood still. Except it hasn't.

On Monday, General Motors Corp. filed for bankruptcy protection.

Ten days before that, Frank Romeo, whose father, Dom, opened Pine View in August, 1970, was given notice that the family-run dealership is being terminated.

"It hit all of us," recalls Frank, who at 52 has spent a lifetime on and around the sales floor.

"You're never quite prepared for anything like that."

Not that he didn't see it coming.

With the Pontiac marque accounting for 50 per cent of the dealer's sales, and with GM taking the decision in April to axe the brand, Pine View was on the vulnerable side of the GM "house" - the other side of the house being the Chevrolet side. A piece of car history died that day, leaving memories of the summer of '76, or thereabouts, when Frank and his brother Steve fixed up a beaten-down silver GTO convertible and spent the season tooling in their off hours to Wasaga Beach, "a happening place," he says. Sun. Hot dogs. Sand. A convertible. "We had a nice summer with that car." Dom drove a Buick Riviera. "He always enjoyed the ride of a Buick," Frank says. "Boy they were big cars. They seemed to me like they took up most of the road."

Those were the days. When GM owned the road. When Americans' love of the American car was at its emotional zenith. Before the auto maker, and its sister American car makers for that matter, faced the challenge of having to reinvent themselves and convince consumers that they've got something worth buying, as they are trying to do today.

As recently as two years ago the Romeo family saw no reason why their intergenerational dealership, not uncommon within the GM family, would pass again to future generations.

Today? "We're looking at other opportunities that may exist in the marketplace," Frank says. "We are going to continue as an independent auto dealer. We have a great used-car operation. We have our own in-house leasing company. And we have a good service department. We believe we can play a part in the community here but we won't be a new-car franchise dealer at the end of our contract with General Motors." The contract expires Dec. 31.

Mr. Romeo takes a studied view of what's happening all around him. "I think we are going through a real culture change in the auto industry," he says. "What drives the industry is having those vehicles that create that 'wow' that the consumer says, 'Gee, I've got to have one of those.' General Motors … lost that in the eighties and nineties. They just didn't build enough 'wow' vehicles."

GM tries to find new voice

The day that General Motors filed for Chapter 11 it rolled out a 60-second commercial with which the car company has blanketed the airwaves. "Let's be completely honest," intones a narrator in one of those classically rich - and male - commercial voices. "No company wants to go through this."

Like a creative mood board, the spot is a mélange of images: green shoots, a downed hockey player, a flapping flag, a runner with an artificial leg. Cue the male voice: "We're not witnessing the end of the American car. We're witnessing the rebirth of the American car."

The commercial marks General Motors' first marketing salvo in the resetting of the U.S. car industry, in which there is a single objective not just for GM, but for all of the once-heralded Big Three - to "wow" the consumer into loving their cars.

Scott Lackey, strategic director at Jugular Advertising in New York, was unimpressed. "It was just another anthem spot," he says of the commercial, meaning a series of quick filmic cuts with inspiring imagery. Given the questions today's consumer is bound to have about the car company - such as, will it be around in a year? - Mr. Lackey argues that GM needed to put something "forceful and dramatic in the marketplace. Something real. Not motherhood and apple pie, fighters and flags."

It strikes Mr. Lackey - a dedicated Saab driver, it must be said - that GM "has no real story. They have no brand image that's meaningful, aside from Cadillac." (Mr. Lackey lives in Franklin Lakes, N.J., and notes that the Escalade appears to be the status symbol of choice with both soccer moms and the likes of local resident and ex-New York Giants quarterback, Phil Simms.)

The newly contrite GM is now apologizing for overpopulating the car lots with too many brands and too many models. As with the Romeos at Pine View, the company is aggressively paring the dealer network: Of the approximately 6,200 car and light truck dealerships on record in the United States as of January, as many as 2,600 could be closed by the end of next year. In Canada, between 240 and 280 or as much as 40 per cent of the country's roughly 700 dealerships will close in the next 18 months.

James Gregory, chief executive officer of CoreBrand, says what GM has been left with is a "shell of a brand." The New York-based company, with offices in Los Angeles and Minneapolis, analyzes brands and the value they create. By CoreBrand's math, the portion of GM's market capitalization attributable to the brand name was $4.86-billion (U.S.) in 2003. In 2008, GM's brand equity had been "squandered," to use Mr. Gregory's terminology, all the way down to $320-million.

"They have been walking away from just tremendous value of their corporate brand while allowing their competitors to grow the value of their brands," Mr. Gregory says. "They not only destroyed their product brands, they just lost all credibility."

What the car company desperately needs is an effective marketing message, a rallying cry for the company's survival, Mr. Gregory suggests, citing Lee Iacocca's legendary "If you can find a better car, buy it" line for Chrysler in the eighties. "It's a marketing message, but it's one of leadership."

Problematically for GM, the company's new CEO, Fritz Henderson, has no personal brand cachet, having been on the job for fewer than three months. On Thursday, the CEO engaged in a live online Web chat answering burning questions from customers. "Will the Corvette survive as the V8-engined rear-wheel-driven icon we all love?" Answer: "Yes, my wonderful baby is my 2005 Corvette. We have more in store for the future and this iconic brand will retain its powerful place in the new GM." Will the Pontiac G8 live on as a Chevy? "No."

Allan Kazmer, a legend in the Canadian advertising industry, says it's time for GM to be fearless. "I would have been self-accusatory," he says of the message the company needs to convey now. "People are emotionally attached to theirs cars. It's not just an object."

Years ago, Mr. Kazmer had a bird's-eye view of how GM managed its marketing message. For 31/2 years, starting in 1965, he worked at GM's ad agency, Campbell-Ewald, in Detroit. "I worked in the Chevrolet print department … We had 27 art directors and writers just working on the print alone, if you can imagine that," he says. Getting an ad approved meant pushing through the internal workings at the ad agency, and then Chevrolet product information people, and the car company's own ad department, and then the head of the division, followed by GM corporate. "So you see this built-in bureaucracy which creates mediocrity … It was so bureaucratic and so layered. This is part of what's wrong with the corporation itself," Mr. Kazmer says.

He recalls an ad he did get approved for the Chevy II: "The Chevy II puts the kibosh on rust," was the ad line. "That doesn't sound like revolutionary advertising, but after I got the word kibosh through, several of us copywriters went out and got drunk to celebrate that I actually snuck living language into an ad." Mr. Kazmer finds precisely the right word to assess the company's latest marketing efforts: "Platitudinous."

In 1981, Mr. Kazmer became international creative director for ad agency DDB in Toronto, a point worth mentioning because it was the "B" in DDB - Bill Bernbach - who created the "Think Small" campaign that launched the Volkswagen beetle in North America. With spare, intelligent advertising, DDB took, as Mr. Kazmer says, "an ugly-looking little car with a bad heater" and went up against the American car market. The car as anti-hero. Here's a line that Mr. Kazmer used many times when teaching students of advertising: "You sell to the heart and the heart seizes the mind."

Ford having a Fiesta

A video posted to YouTube last month features British TV car show host Jeremy Clarkson putting a Ford Fiesta through an extreme road test for Top Gear ("The World's Greatest Car TV Show"). The show, which airs on the BBC, follows Mr. Clarkson as he races a celery green Fiesta through a shopping mall, and conducts a sort of landing on the beach of Normandy with the Fiesta zooming off a Royal Marines landing craft and then coursing through the ocean froth under cover of fake artillery fire. ("Hey look at that!" exclaims Mr. Clarkson. "The smoke grenades fit perfectly in the cup holders.")

It's both wondrous, and a pitch to the heart, though it is not an ad.

Dean Stoneley, vice-president, marketing, Ford of Canada, says Ford will launch a commercial later this year that will tease Canadian consumers about the Fiesta, due to arrive on these shores in 2010. "I think from a design point of view the Fiesta stands out in its class," Mr. Stoneley says. "It's an aspirational car." And hot-selling in Europe. If Ford handles the brand with verve in Canada, the Fiesta could create the kind of buzz the VW Beetle generated in its day.

In the meantime, the company's corporate branding strategy is centred around what the company calls its "groundswell" campaign. "The goal of the spots is to change perceptions of our brand," says Mr. Stoneley of the rather earnest and conventional commercials built on four message pillars: quality, safety, green, smart. There's nothing emotive about them. "Our approach is more tactical, a lot more grounded," he says. "I think consumers right now are looking for facts. It's less about creative for the sake of creative."

In other words: reassurance. Ford, which hasn't had its hand out for bailout money, released sales figures this week that show that while car sales are down 10 per cent year over year, its month-to-month sales are moving up. The company is gaining market share, though won't quantify by how much.

Mr. Stoneley's mandate is to get consumers into the showroom, where browsers and buyers are currently met with a national dealer promotion event running through the end of the month: "This spring, keep your money," is the marketing line for the zero-down promotion.

At dinner time on a Wednesday there are a couple of customers at Al Palladini's Pine Tree Ford Lincoln dealership, which recently joined company with a string of dealerships - Porsche, BMW and more - on Auto Park Circle in Woodbridge, a short hop from the Romeos' Pine View shop. Business is slow for commercial truck manager Tom Cheslea - all that promised government-funded infrastructure work hasn't translated into commercial truck orders, at least not yet.

Al Palladini died in 2001, but this dealership lives on, run by his son, Franco, and his candy-apple red Ferrari 328 GTS takes pride of place in the showroom with a warning to gawkers: "Unless you're in the nude, please do not touch." Mr. Cheslea tries to recall who it was who voiced those corny, but memorable Palladini ads: "Any Palladini is a pal of mine," was the catchiest. "Short little guy. Comedian," says Mr. Cheslea, struggling in vain for the name. (It was Rick Moranis.)

In the quiet of the showroom, Mr. Cheslea ponders the art of selling. "Selling is like anything else," he says. "Basically all you're doing is meeting the customer's requirements. Sometimes it's price. Sometimes it's product. Sometimes it's specifications. Sometimes it's colour."

What does the customer want?

At Auto Park Circle the customer can find just about anything in the auto world. A Ferrari/Maserati dealership has just opened (the Ferrari California sure is pretty). At the Porsche dealership, customers can recline in the black leather chairs in the "fitting lounge" and create their car on computer: leather, paint, carpet. Mark Basili, online marketing manager for Pfaff Automotive Partners, which owns this dealership and others, says lifestyle is being sold here. And emotion.

"Passion is our policy," he says, moving smoothly through the sleek grey and matte-silver interior of what feels more like a Manhattan condo than an auto dealership. Mr. Basili says that when he was "younger" he would tour luxury dealerships and dream. Today he's 23. "My purchase options have expanded," he says, now that he's working full-time. There's nothing in the current economic maelstrom to make him lust after a new car any less.

At Pine View, the aesthetic is very different. But there's history here. "We flipped customers too fast," says general sales manager Vince Palumbo. "We were flipping vehicles so fast because the programs were so good." We chat about leasing, and the new-car-every-three-years ethos of modern American car culture. And then the broader economic woes, what Mr. Palumbo calls this "whole money situation and banking … In the States, you know, you could just open up a bank and call it Bob's Bank and it's a bank."

It's people like the Romeos who are paying the price for all that. Frank Romeo recalls how surprised he was when he realized that when cars arrive on the auto lot they don't appear quite as magical as they do in the advertisements. "I always envisioned these cars when they came from the factory as being shiny … all clean and glittery," he says. He wasn't counting on the dirt and dust encountered on the trek to the dealership.

The family has a Nissan franchise, where spanking new cars will still arrive. And the planned-for used-car business here at Pine View. "When you work hard to build something and you're proud of it and then see someone take it away for no apparent reason, it certainly is disappointing," Frank says. "But you know, it is what it is. We're going to pick up the pieces and move forward."

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